My parents had a terrible marriage.
This is not news, since their divorce is public record. But recently, I’ve been contemplating once again the example I grew up with. Let’s just say they didn’t set me up well to address issues in my own marriage.
You can probably relate. Some of you had functional families (yes, they exist!), with flaws of course. Some of you had problematic families that didn’t provide the support you should have received. And some of you had awful childhoods with emotional pain that bruised your tender heart in ways few people understand.
Regardless of your history, when you get married, you hope to create a healthy, intimate relationship with your spouse. But how has your family background affected your ability to achieve that worthy goal?When you get married, you hope to create a healthy, intimate relationship with your spouse. But how has your family background affected your ability to achieve that worthy goal? via @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet
What Did They Teach?
What did your parents tell you about marriage? About the opposite sex? About sexual intimacy? Can you still hear their words in your head? Many of us can. Others experienced deafening silence, their parents sharing little if anything, especially when it came to sex.
Your parents may have promoted bad ideas about marriage generally, or one’s ability to change, or how children will impact your marital happiness. Or just the opposite sex altogether.
Truly, if I had a dime for every wife who’d told me her mother said negative things about men, I’d be basking in the French Riviera right now with an umbrellaed drink in hand. Mind you, I believe we should caution our daughters about the small minority of men who harass and abuse. But I’m talking about general statements like: “Men are perverts.” “All men look at porn.” “If you don’t give him sex, he’ll get it somewhere else.” “Men are just big children.” What awful messages that set a wife up for believing the worst about her husband!
Even so, I often feel sympathy for those who taught their children poorly, because they may not have known better. Many well-meaning women, trying to fulfill their Titus 2:3-5 duty, instructed younger women to control sexual impulses before marriage and have duty sex after marriage, “because he needs it.” They weren’t trying to screw us up—they simply didn’t understand God’s design for sex!
But whether they were motivated by selfishness, resentment, or just plain ignorance, we may have received bad teaching from our parents. Mull over what you learned from them and ask, “What do I need to challenge and correct?”
“Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.” ~ Mark Twain
What Example Did They Set?
Philosopher Edmund Burke said, “Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other,” while Novelist James Baldwin said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
Your parents were imperfect people, so no matter how great they were, they didn’t model everything perfectly. But some of you had bad examples, perhaps because they were struggling so much with life themselves. And some of you had little to no example of marriage, with divorce and/or absentee parents.
Even if you decide firmly that you will break that mold, be honest: Didn’t you pick up some of their dysfunction? We can find ourselves behaving in ways they did—even when we disliked it so much ourselves or swore we wouldn’t be like that. We can also create problems by overreacting in our own marriage in an effort to avoid repeating our parents’ mistakes.
For example, my mother took care of my dad like Edith Bunker took care of Archie, constantly attending to his needs and wants. Because I did not want their marriage, early on in my marriage, I would get prickly about my husband asking me to perform basic courtesies like bringing him a drink from the kitchen while I was in there anyway. For much too long, I allowed my fear of following in my parents’ footsteps prevent me from speaking my husband’s love language (acts of service) and showing kindness to my beloved.
Ask yourself what example your parent(s) set and how that has benefited or hurt your marriage. If you didn’t have a good example from your parents on something, including sex intimacy, find another one. That’s part of why I’m here—to show that healthy, holy, and sizzling hot sexual intimacy can be found, even if you’ve failed in the past.
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
What Change Do You Need to Make?
It’s one thing to know where the issues lie and another to change what needs to be changed. Recently, I’ve been going through my father’s old files, and it’s been disheartening to see how much information he collected about how to have a good relationship … that he didn’t put into practice for his own marriage.
Head knowledge is not heart knowledge. And even heart knowledge is not the same as commitment and active practice.Head knowledge is not heart knowledge. And even heart knowledge is not the same as commitment and active practice. #marriage via @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet
You may need to simply think through what teaching and modeling you received from your parents and adjust your attitudes. You may need to communicate with your spouse about your pasts and how those have contributed to current tension or conflict. You may need to actively adopt new practices that come habits over time, replacing the old, unproductive ways. You may need to seek professional help in the form of marriage therapy, personal counseling, or trauma treatment.
Your journey is unique. But all lasting change requires humility, resolve, and perseverance. If you don’t have those right now, pray for them, and then take your first steps.
What Example Are You Setting?
We married folks exert a lot of influence with our words and actions. We train our children with what we say and do as well. What example do they see in us?
If you panicked at that thought, don’t worry. It doesn’t have to be perfect! You can do this.
You don’t need to pretend everything’s okay or share sentiments you don’t believe; kids eventually see through pretenses anyway. But you can share foundational truths, admit where you’ve messed up and what you’ve learned, and demonstrate how to make difficult but worthwhile change.
Also let your kids see demonstrations of love toward your spouse. Be affectionate; tell stories about how you met, dated, vacationed, etc. (yes, even when they roll their eyes), reaffirm your marital commitment in front of them.
To equip you with better messages about marriage and sex, here are a few worthwhile reads:
- Talking to Your Kids about Sex: No More One & Done
- How to Talk to a Teen about Sex
- Top 10 Things I Want to Teach My Teens About Sex (guest post on To Love Honor & Vacuum)
- What Dads Teach Their Daughters about Intimacy
- The Dating Advice I Gave Teen Girls
- 5 Times You Teach Holy and Healthy Sex to Your Kids
Again, you can do this.
Not only did I have a poor model of marriage from my parents, my husband and I were poor models of marriage when our kids were young. However, neither of my sons remembers that time. They’ve had too many alternate experiences of parents who argue sometimes but love each other and are fully committed to the marriage.
Over time, we re-balanced the scales and changed the image of marriage for our sons. My older son even told me recently that, particularly in light of what he’s learned about our childhood pasts, his dad and I were “incredible parents.”
As we improve our own marriage and provide a positive model for our kids, we can take heart in this truth:
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).